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Dr Nyanzi's Struggle

One of the main reasons why girls in Uganda miss school or drop out altogether is the lack of readily available sanitary products . Shame and fear mean that three out of ten girls fail to turn up for school during their period. This exacerbates the low achievement levels for girls, with around half of 15 to 24 year olds being unable to read and write according to the United Nations Girls' Education Initiative.

In his re-election campaign in 2016 Uganda's long-serving President Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power since 1986, pledged to curb girls' absenteeism by providing free sanitary pads. Soon after his re-election, however, education minster Janet Museveni, who has also served as First Lady since 1986, told parliament that there wasn't enough money for the initiative and that it would be shelved.

For Dr. Stella Nyanzi, a research fellow at Makerere University, this announcement was just another broken campaign promise. She decided that if the government wasn't going to deliver, then she would take matters into her own hands by launching a highly-publicised campaign to draw attention to girls’ unequal access to education. She mobilised supporters, raised money and collected donations to provide sanitary products directly to affected girls. Her campaign - #Pads4Girls - gathered steam. Dr Nyazni was also instrumental in organising Uganda’s first ever women’s march in June 2018 protesting the appalling rates of femicide, with over 40 women killed, often after being kidnapped and raped, between May 2017 and June 2018.

While driving #Pads4Girls forward, Dr Nyanzi also launched a strongly, and often profanely, worded attack on the President and his wife on Facebook, excoriating them for the broken campaign promise. The response from the president was swift. On 7 April 2017 she was arrested on suspicion of 'cyber harassment and offensive communication' under Uganda's relatively new Computer Misuse Act (2011). The charge specifically focused on her reference to the President as 'a pair of buttocks', a daring comment from the fearless feminist, LGBTQI activist, queer poet and scholar who is known for her 'radical rudeness' in speaking truth to power.

In court, the government prosecutor alleged that Dr Nyanzi must be mentally unstable to come up with the profanities in her attacks on the President and she was duly sent for a psychiatric examination at Butabika Hospital in Kampala which she refused, asking to be seen by her personal doctor or in the presence of a family members. After a month in prison she was released on bail set at 10 million Ugandan Shillings (USD 2,925.00). It wasn't long, however, until Dr Nyanzi was back in prison, this time for a poem about the president she posted on Facebook. In it she suggests that Uganda would have been better off if Museveni had died at birth and makes a number of crude references to the president's mother's private parts.

What has come to be known as the 'vagina case' saw Dr Nyanzi back in prison in November 2018 where she remains until the time of writing (May 2019) having refused bail on account of the fact that her "freedom would only be an illusion with the case still pending." If Dr Nyanzi were to be found guilty of 'offensive communication' on account of having 'wilfully and repeatedly used electronic communication to disturb ... the peace, quiet or right of privacy of any person' she could face up to a year in prison. Her next court appearance is pending but in the meantime, she was awarded a human rights award from Solidarity Uganda, a pressure group, for being a consistent defender of human rights.

Frederic Noy, based in Kampala, has been following Dr Nyanzi's tumultuous head-to-head with the Ugandan government and its entrenched president every step of the way.
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